The message of “Horton Hears a Who” has only grown sweeter and more relevant with age

By Dave Andrusko

Theodor Seuss Geisel—“Dr. Seuss”

Theodor Seuss Geisel—“Dr. Seuss” —was born March 2, 1904. According to various biographies, after graduating in 1925 from Dartmouth College, Geisel sought a doctorate in literature at Oxford University.

There his life took a dramatic shift when he met Helen Palmer, whom he wed in 1927. “Upon his return to America later that year, Geisel published cartoons and humorous articles for Judge, the leading humor magazine in America at that time.”

And, as they say, the rest is history.

People magazine once posted “15 Dr. Seuss Quotes That Will Give You Serious Life Inspiration” in honor of what the magazine (mischaracterized) as what would have been Geisel’s 122nd birthday. It’s fascinating that none of the quotes are from his more than 60 children’s books.

We read many of Geisel’s books to our kids (more accurately, my wife, Lisa, read them to Emily, David, Joanna, and Louisa) as have millions of other parents. Pro-lifers often quote a phrase from “Horton,” the elephant in Dr. Seuss’s classic Horton Hears a Who, who repeatedly explained his persistence in attempting to save the inhabitants of Whoville (who were “too small to be seen by an elephant’s eyes”) by stating, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

After Geisel’s passing, his widow did not want pro-lifers “hijacking” Horton Hears a Who. Writing for ABC News in 2008 Marcus Baram noted

Karl ZoBell, the lawyer for Dr. Seuss Enterprises, told National Public Radio that “She doesn’t like people to hijack Dr. Seuss characters or material to front their own points of view.”

Baram’s piece was very clever [it no longer appears on the ABC News Entertainment page, by the way] and helped the unfamiliar reader understand what was so special about Horton. He began

What is it about this children’s book
That fills Dr. Seuss fans with such scorn?
Anti-abortion groups took a look
At Horton and they saw the unborn.

We all learned to read with the books written by Theodor Seuss Geisel and grew up with characters from the “Cat in the Hat” and “Yertle the Turtle” to the “Sneetches and the Grinch.”

But do the books have a hidden meaning?

Since the 1980s, some anti-abortion rights groups have interpreted the book “Horton Hears a Who” as an anti-abortion parable.

If you don’t remember, it’s the tale of Horton the elephant who discovers a whole town of tiny people living on a speck of dust.

Though his neighbors think he’s crazy and make fun of him, Horton makes it his mission to protect his new friends, declaring his intention with the famous line:

“A person’s a person no matter how small.”

I took a few minutes this afternoon to re-read Horton Hears a Who. The almost lyrical observations that teach life-affirming lessons about the importance of protecting the voiceless is not some one-note aside. Rather it is part of a symphony that is saturated with the absolute necessity of never allowing ridicule to detour you from doing what is right.

Horton Hears a Who was published 55 years ago. Its message has only grown sweeter and more relevant with age.